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Toyota Rally RAV4: The Exception That Proves The Rule

Another rally good run in New England

NEWRY, Maine — No Boring Cars. It’s a tough standard to meet. Most of the cars on the road are appliances, after all, and the people driving them just trying to get to work, to school, to the kids, back home. The Toyota RAV4 excels at these things, because it is utterly unremarkable, invisible, uninvolving. It’s perfect because it’s boring, but it’s still perfectly boring.

Except, that is, for one special example: the competition-prepped but essentially stock Rally RAV4 co-piloted by Ryan Millen and Rhianon Gelsomino to the 2017 American Rally Association national championship in the Open 2WD class.

Backed by Toyota Racing Development, but bootstrapped from Millen’s own privately purchased, retail RAV4, the Rally RAV4 is exactly what it sounds like: a race-ready RAV4 built to do it in the dirt.

It’s shockingly stock; the suspension, wheels, and tires are the only real modifications aside from the addition of the requisite safety gear, a welded differential, and a transmission cooler. That’s right, this rally car runs a stock 2.5-liter, 176-hp four-cylinder engine and a six-speed automatic transmission.

If that sounds a bit boring, well, you’re not wrong. But it’s only boring for a handful of seconds. Once the little-RAV4-that-could musters its momentum, all bets are off—and all four wheels are likely to be in the air at some point. But that’s as much because of the team making the RAV4 fly as anything special about the car itself.

That Millen and Gelsomino managed to clinch the American Rally Association’s (ARA) Open 2WD-class title with a rally still on the schedule at last weekend’s New England Forest Rally speaks more to their talent and skill than to any inherent superiority of the RAV4 platform.

That’s not to say the RAV4 doesn’t have its strengths as a rally car. Being not just based on, but still mostly composed of, a production RAV4, the rally car is, if anything, overbuilt.

That means it’s heavy (somewhere north of 3,400 lbs, depending on how much gear (tools, spares, etc.) and fuel is on board, about 700 lbs heavier than its 2WD competition), but it also means it’s tough.

Case in point: before the rally even started, while Millen was giving ride-alongs to a handful of gathered media, a rock from the freshly graded and still-soft exhibition stage struck one of the right-rear lower suspension pick-up points and pushed it about ½” rearward, skewing it out of square in the process.

The resulting rhomboid jimmied the alignment a bit, but it wasn’t enough to count the RAV4 out. In fact, the team opted not to bother trying to fix it before the rally, and yet the Rally RAV4 managed to survive a hole toward the end of one stage that not only broke the right rear suspension on Travis Pastrana’s Subaru, but ripped the entire right rear corner off his teammate, David Higgins’s, car. Score one for the little guy.

Having an eye for durability in a race vehicle is nothing out of the ordinary for Millen. If the name looks familiar, that’s because he’s the son of off-road racing legend Rod Millen, and the younger brother of racer/drifter/stunt driver Rhys.

As Ryan knows as well as anyone, when you’re running a few hundred or a thousand miles through remote, punishing desert, you’re staking it all on your choice of vehicle—not just your results, but potentially your life.

Rally isn’t quite so extreme in its punishment of unreliability, but it is mostly done in remote areas, over harsh terrain, and that means a car that doesn’t break down and lose time or DNF will accrue points more consistently than one that does. It’s a classic case of tortoise and hare.

And, to be fair, it’s not actually slow. Millen’s skill behind the wheel and Gelsomino’s rock-steady, WRC-proven pace notes combine to make a force that would likely put any car they were in at the front of the field—the RAV4’s strongest asset is actually parallel to the road-going car’s: the ability to just get out of the way, to fade into the background.

On the road that means focusing on your kids, or that big project at work, rather than being absorbed in the mere operation of your vehicle; on the rally stage the RAV4’s wallflower demeanor leaves more mental space for nailing the details of more than 100 miles of treacherous, ever-changing off-road conditions—and the 350-plus miles of open road transits that link them together.

But Millen and Gelsomino aren’t just putting the screws to the 2WD competition, having won the class championship simply by rolling out of Parc Exposé at the New England Forest Rally, accruing the single point needed to clinch the trophy. Winning their class was just an extended champagne spray.

The RAV4 rally duo is now setting their sights on the overall championship: they currently sit third in the overall rankings, three points ahead of their nearest four-wheel-drive pursuers. There’s one rally remaining on the ARA schedule for 2017, the Ojibwe Forests Rally in Minnesota.

Will the Rally RAV4 and its talented team manage a spot on the overall podium for the season? It’s looking more and more likely, but one thing is certain: whatever the result, it’ll be anything but boring.

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